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On ‘The Book Thief’: Why we shouldn’t forget past injustices

February 8, 2014 3:36pm
Liesel Meminger in the act of stealing a book in the movie. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
What’s the value of “The Book Thief” for Filipinos, a book about a young girl sent to live with foster parents during the Second World War?

This was one of the questions raised during “The Book Thief” book discussion at Fully Booked, Bonifacio Global City last February 1. The event was hosted by the Australian Embassy and Fully Booked, with the support of publishing firm Random House.

As explained by moderator Honey de Peralta, there are no right or wrong answers during the three-hour discussion, an event held as part of “Celebrate Australia” month in the Philippines.

De Peralta is the vice-president and general manager of Flipside Publishing, an ebook publisher with over 250 ebooks on major ebookstores.

The three panelists during the discussion were: Johanna Mariflor Añes, faculty member at the Department of Speech Communication and Theater Arts, University of the Philippines-Diliman; Candice Lopez-Quimpo, a writer and editor, and Janise Ruiz, owner of the LTTD consulting company.

Into the fire

“The Book Thief,” written by Australian author Markus Zusak, was first released in 2005. It stayed for over 230 weeks on the New York Times’ bestseller list.

“The Book Thief” movie was released in 2013, starring Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, and Sophie Nelisse as Liesel Meminger, the lead character.

Owing to family misfortunes, Liesel had to be sent away to foster parents in Germany at the height of the Second World War.

On her way to meet her new family, Liesel, who does not know how to read, picks up a book—“The Gravedigger’s Handbook.” Later, in a Nazi book-burning ceremony, Liesel picksup an intact book—“The Shoulder Shrug”—from under a heap of burnt ones.

According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia, book burning was prevalent during the Second World War.

“Usually carried out in a public context, the burning of books represents an element of censorship and usually proceeds from a cultural, religious, or political opposition to the materials in question,” it stated.

But Nazis also burned people—particularly the Jews, who were deemed inferior and an alien threat to the German race. The Holocaust was the systematic and government-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime which came to power in Germany in 1933.

Perhaps not-so-incidentally, the word "holocaust" means “sacrifice by fire.”

Relevance to Filipinos

What is its value to Filipinos today considering the Holocaust happened over 80 years ago?

About 40 panelists and the participants in total agreed that stories about the Holocaust are still relevant. They are there to remind people not to let genocide—the systematic destruction of part or an entire racial, ethnic, or religious group—happen again.

Attempting to find a contemporary and geographical correlative, the moderator noted a lack of novels based on crucial moments in Philippine history, such as the Spanish colonization (1521 to 1898), American Occupation (1898-1946), and Japanese Occupation (1942 to 1945).

Japan, in particular, can be seen as the equivalent of a World War II invader in Philippine history, and not least because it was once allied with Germany.

In the past, many people, especially elderly Filipino women, would cringe upon the mention of “Japan” as it reminds them of the horrors of the Second World War.

A report last year recounted the wartime sufferings of some “100,000 to 250,000 Asian women, many between the ages of 13 and 15, who were abducted by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II to serve as sex slaves.”

The Japanese soldiers kept the women in military brothels where they were repeatedly raped, according to the group Lila Pilipina, a group that started in 1992 with 174 members but only has a little over 100 alive members today, and few have told their stories. Even fewer are those who have volunteered to tell their stories for them.

At “The Book Thief” discussion, Quimpo cited the need to support Filipino writers so that stories crucial to Filipinos can be told.

Stolen books

Liesel, the “Book Thief,” later goes on to steal five other books: “The Whistler,” “The Dream Carrier,” “A Song in the Dark,” “The Complete Duden Dictionary and Thesaurus,” “and “The Last Human Stranger.”
On Twitter, the official site of “The Book Thief” movie describes Liesel as a “kind-hearted, gentle, book-thieving soul.”

During the book discussion on “The Book Thief,” the moderator cited a quote about stealing: “You need stealth, nerve, speed, and you need luck.”

De Peralta noted that in “The Book Thief,” stealing is somehow presented as
”something good. something you should aspire to because there's no negative in there.”

She also cited a quote from Liesel’s neighbor Rudy: “It feels good doesn't it, to steal something back?”

De Peralta said these quotes should be placed in their proper context: stealing the books at the time of the Nazi book-burnings was somehow a form of regaining their self-esteem.

“The stealing was like an act of rebellion or resistance against the Nazis,” De Peralta said. “She (Liesel) lost a lot, she lost too much, she lost her family to the Nazis and she was about to be given away…”

One of the youngest participants during the book discussion, Franco, the son of panelist Ruiz, gave his own take on the book’s theme of stealing and how it became symbolic of taking some power back.

”There are three things that you can do in life. When life throws you lemons you make lemonade. When life gives you apples you have to throw back at life,” Franco said. “The third thing applies to the book. When life throws you lemonades you've got to take all the lemonade. They're taking all that they can get.”

Power of words

The panelists and the participants also discussed the power of words and how German leader Adolf Hitler used words to sway an entire country into believing that the Jews were a threat to society and thus had to be killed.

Quimpo noted how “Hitler's propaganda and words created the greatest fiasco of our lives. It's amazing to think that we had to hit back and guns, with bombs and so much destruction because somebody believed him and said I believe this guy, listen to him, listen to him...”

Añes said, “Words are very powerful, as evidenced by what happened during the Holocaust. But I think aside from words Hitler was a heavy user of symbols that's why during Nazi Germany you would see Swastikas hanging everywhere.”

Hitler was “great with words, he was very charismatic. He knew how to tug on your emotions,” Añes pointed out, adding that Hitler was not just an effective user of logos (logical argument) but also of pathos (emotional connection with the audience) and ethos (credibility of the speaker)—the three categories of persuasion as explained by the philosopher Aristotle in 350 BC.

Ruiz noted that even now, words are very powerful. For example, a short tweet or post on Facebook or other social media sites can destroy someone’s life. — VC, GMA News
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